Raimondo, officals: Manufacturing jobs are still critical part of state’s economy
WOONSOCKET – Robert Rosado arrived in Rhode Island from Puerto Rico a few years ago without a job, few skills and a shaky grasp of the English language.
Now they call him one of the rising stars of The Brickle Group, where he’s been promoted four times since he was hired in 2015 and now works as a material coordinator, helping maintain the flow of wool and other raw goods for machine processing at the textile manufacturing company on Singleton Street.
But Rosado says he feels as if he’s found more than a job at the Brickle’s Boukaert Industrial Textiles division.
“I feel like I’m part of the family,” he says with a heavy Latino accent. “I love my job... I’m a Spanish guy.
I speak a little bit English. I can communicate a little bit. But look at me. I can do it. I found my place.”
Rosado came with plenty of motivation, but Max Brickle, president of the company, credits a workforce development program championed by Gov. Gina Raimondo with providing the training and education that helped make it possible for him to succeed at The Brickle Group. The company led the formation of the Phoenix Partnership – a group of manufacturers who teamed up with the New England Institute of Technology to provide training for employment prospects who often arrive with little more than a desire to work.
Phoenix is one of 33 partnerships in the state that are funded through Raimondo’s Real Jobs RI, a program that recently received an $18 million renewal from the General Assembly to operate through the end of the fiscal year. The partnerships cut across all fields of endeavor, but Phoenix is one of only a handful that are focused on the essentials of manufacturing skills.
In one of several stops in the city Wednesday – Raimondo joined Brickle and his staff, including several alumni of the Phoenix Partnership to see how the program is working. She later toured the cav- ernous textile plant, where various divisions, including Northwest Woolen Mills, manufactures everything from military berets and pea coats for the Navy to blankets for the homeless and yarn for Rawlings baseballs – the ones used by Major League Baseball.
“It’s exciting for me to see it in action, to meet the people who’ve been trained, who’ve gotten raises,” said Raimondo. “They love their jobs. The owner of the company says this has enabled him to get more business, so that’s good, and workers that I talk to like their jobs and they’re making more money.”
For the second time, Raimondo is facing a challenge in the November election from Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, who questions whether programs like Real Jobs RI are worth the cost to taxpayers. But Raimondo says it is responsible for creating about 3,500 jobs.
“That’s a lot of Rhode Islanders who are getting good jobs, better jobs, higher-paying jobs,” the governor said. “This is an investment in our people. I say let’s keep it going.”
Unemployment is currently running at about 4 percent, the lowest the state has seen for decades, but the high demand for labor comes with a downside for companies like the Brickle Group: Just about everybody who wants a job has one.
The company pays wages that generally range between $13 and $16 an hour and offers a competitive package of benefits, but Brickle says recruiting and retaining employees can be a challenge in the prevailing calculus of labor supply and demand. Workers are not only hard to find – it’s not unusual for them to jump ship for a position elsewhere – which is particularly frustrating after the company has made a substantial investment in training.
That’s where the Phoenix Partnership is making a difference, says Brickle.
By providing training and education to entry-level workers with few skills, the Brickle Group is having more success in promoting workers more quickly, which makes their jobs more satisfying and increases the likelihood that they’ll stay on.
“A lot of these people coming in are a clean slate,” said Brickle. “They have no manufacturing experience. People who have manufacturing experience are already employed.”
Immigrants are an important component of the workforce, said Brickle, who advocates for a more welcoming approach to making the American workplace accessible to newcomers. “We need immigrants,” he told Raimondo.
Brickle said that roughly half the company’s workforce of 110 are alumni of the Phoenix Partnership and that collectively, employee retention among its members has risen from 88 to 95 percent since the inception of the program.
In addition to The Brickle Group, Phoenix includes Aspen Aerogels and Teknicote, both of East Providence; Becker Manufacturing, Coventry; Vibco Vibrators of Richmond; Admiral Packaging of Providence; ETCO Inc. of Warwick; Town Dock of Johnston; Edesia of North Kingstown; Amerisewn of Warwick; Taco Inc., Cranston; Northeast Knitting of Pawtucket; and Cimini & Associates of Westerly.
One of the features of Phoenix that Brickle likes most is that it was conceived by the Raimondo administration as a bottom-up initiative, with programs custom-designed to meet the demands of employers. They drive the curriculum at NEIT.
With resources from Real Jobs RI, Phoenix recruits receive free enrollment in manufacturing training at NEIT. Half of the recruits’ classroom training time is covered as salary. Recruits also receive reimbursement for mileage and daycare,
The program includes several levels of training on topics that include workplace safety, quality control, productivity, problem-solving and teamwork.
Department of Labor and Training Director Scott Jensen said The Brickle Group has found a unique way to take advantage of the program by using it not just as a recruiting tool, but to accelerate promotions for more experienced workers.
“They built a very smart system to be able to do that,” Jensen said. “By upskilling people who are already working for them and being able to make room at a lower skill level for new employees and making sure they have the training... When people come in who have a little less skill but a great work ethic and a great desire to learn, you have the ability to integrate them and skill them up.”
In addition to Rosado, Raimondo also met two other Brickle workers who received training through Phoenix – Yenifer Jolon, a production leader, and Amanda Plante, a maintenance inventory associate.
“I used to manage a restaurant before I came here,” said Plante. “So it was a big change for me. The classes were very helpful.”
For Rosado, the workplace has turned out to be as much of a learning environment as the classroom. He said the help he’s received from his co-workers learning new tasks in the manufacturing process has inspired him to try to help others as they enter the training program.
He’s not even thinking about looking for a job anywhere else – Brickle feels like home.
And when he had a chance to tell Raimondo how he felt about that yesterday, he had two words.